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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Phila-Trivia: Jean de Sperati -the Rubens of Philatelic Forgery

Jean de Sperati (1884-1957) was among the most noted stamp forgers of the world. Even professional stamp authenticators of his time attested to the genuineness of his stamps. A printer and engraver by profession, he was able to mimic the details of design, the pressure and the paper with such accuracy that he earned the title "the Rubens of Philately".

Sperati was born in 1884 in Pisa, Italy, though he spent a large part of his life in France. As a child in Pisa and later in France, he began to collect stamps. He was particularly interested in printing techniques, as well as photography which was in its infancy at that time. Relatives owned a postcard factory as well as a paper mill. Through this, Sperati was able to obtain copious knowledge of photographic processes, print technology and chemicals. These formed the basis for his eventual career as a stamp counterfeiter.

The first attempts to copy stamps went extraordinarily well. The first forgeries were of valuable stamps from San Marino, and stamp experts believed them to be real. Thereupon Sperati began to produce numerous further reproductions of valuable stamps from all over the world. This eventually resulted in well over 500 master-quality forgeries from more than 100 different stamp-issuing agencies.

In 1942, for the first time in his life, Sperati came into conflict with the law. A shipment marked as valuable from Sperati to a stamp dealer in Lisbon, Portugal was intercepted by French customs. It contained several falsified German stamps. They charged him with "exporting capital" without a licence and trying to avoid customs payments. He protested his innocence, and explained to the police that it contained only copies of valuable stamps, which he himself had prepared, whereupon the police called in the country's best stamp experts to clear up the facts of the case. These experts came to the judgment that the stamps in question were all originals, and very valuable ones at that. Sperati still managed to convince the police that they were fakes, and was therefore charged with fraud. His trial took place in April 1948.

Attempting to explain his actions, Sperati tried to convince the court that he had no deceitful intentions in the sale of the stamps. He considered himself to be an artist and not a counterfeiter. Furthermore, he declared to the court that he had merely forgotten to clearly mark the stamps as forgeries and he promised to be more diligent about such marking in the future. He claimed that he had offered the forgeries of rare stamps at about 1% of the normal market price in order to assist the simple collector to obtain these rarities. Nevertheless the Parisian judiciary convicted Sperati and sentenced him to a year in prison, 10,000 francs fine and an additional 300,000 francs for criminal intentions. The Parisians' judiciary did not convict him on the basis of the imitation, but rather because of Sperati's "deceitful intentions". He was convicted in April 1948.

Sperati did not have to serve his prison sentence on the grounds of his age - he was already over 64 years old. In 1954 he sold all his remaining forgeries as well as all the clich├ęs to the "British Philatelic Association" for an enormous sum of money. He then withdrew from the forgery business and promised never again to falsify a stamp. His motive for selling the tools of his trade to the "British Philatelic Association" was to prevent them falling into the possession of someone who would imitate his work. Sperati died three years later in Aix-les-Bains at the age of 73.

The stamp forgeries of Jean de Sperati are some of the best of the world. Many of them slumber undetected in various collections. Sperati falsified only the most valuable rarities of the stamp world. He did this with an inimitable precision scarcely obtained by any other counterfeiter. A Sperati forgery is today in no way worthless. They are highly regarded and obtain high prices as special collectibles. Most other stamp forgeries, on the other hand, are worthless. Sperati paid great attention to the accuracy of the postmark when falsifying the stamps. Therefore, postmarks found on his forgeries are limited to those of larger cities. They are currently very valuable in the philatelic market, and it is believed that he might have produced over 5,000 of them.

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